A Life-Changing Transformation
Christine Errico’s cleft journey inspires advocacy at home and abroad
As a member of Smile Train’s Cleft Community Advisory Council (CCAC), Christine Errico says, “I always feel heard. They got my trust from day one.” The council is an integral part of Smile Train’s work to advance awareness of clefts and engage the US cleft community. It is a community that Christine almost never learned she was missing.
Discouraged from acknowledging and asking about her cleft in childhood, Christine grew up confused and ashamed of her difference. Only in the past few years has she begun to realize the power of sharing her voice and experience. “These are my people,” Christine remembered feeling when she discovered a social media group devoted to supporting cleft-affected adults. “I was hungry for that connection.” Finding her community prompted a journey of self-acceptance and empowerment that she is still traveling — and that she wants to share.
"We're Different Together!"
Christine is determined to make sure other cleft-affected children do feel seen and heard.
On Smile Train’s 2021 Journey of Smiles to Kenya, she brought her passion to the board room of AIC-Cure Hospital in Kijabe. Birds sang in a nearby courtyard as she advocated for Smile Train’s model of comprehensive cleft care, in which local partners like AIC Cure treat the whole child beyond the initial surgery. “When I was a baby, dentists didn’t know what to do with me,” she shared. “I feel for parents who have to face that.” For rural areas like this community outside Nairobi, partnerships with Smile Train extend support beyond the child to include their family and neighbors, as well.
Cleft surgery is a specialty at AIC-Cure, but Smile Train’s support helps the hospital provide all forms of critical pediatric care to the region. “We are able to improve the quality of care,” Dr. Nelson Muoki, director of hospital programs and development, told Christine and the other Smile Train supporters as they toured the facility. “We have been able to reach out more, not just for clefts. It cuts across for other patients who need help.”
Along with clinical teams and local Smile Train staff, the Journey of Smiles travelers visited families who welcomed them into their homes with gratitude for the support their children received. Despite language barriers and vast cultural differences, they all quickly found common ground. As she kneeled for a photo next to Phyllis, an eight-year-old with a shy smile, Christine reassured the little girl with a smile of her own, “We’re different together!”
Healthy and Hopeful Futures
Christine also bonded with Damaris, a cheerful teenager who only received cleft surgery after enduring a childhood of stigma and bullying. Two years post-surgery, Damaris offered her visitors home-brewed tea and a broad smile. Her mother proudly shared how her daughter has come out of her shell since surgery, growing more social and optimistic. Though her family once struggled to find hope for her future, Damaris now looks forward with wide eyes and a bright smile.
Throughout a busy itinerary through urban Nairobi and up mountains that rise above the Rift Valley, Christine and her fellow Journey of Smiles travelers made connections to last a lifetime. The trip “exceeded my expectations,” Christine said. “I never thought it was going to be as life-changing as it was.” Even as a member of the CCAC for three years and counting, “I knew the work that we did. But to see it firsthand, it really made my heart bigger.”
That’s quite a statement from a woman who already had a big heart and a lot to give. In her professional life, she empowers her community as a confidence coach and therapy dog trainer. She also finds time to volunteer around her adopted hometown of Gainesville, Florida. A favorite post is docent at the University of Florida’s Butterfly Rainforest. Surrounded by beautifully colored wings, strong yet fragile, Christine often feels transported. Perhaps they are a reminder of the growth and change she has embraced in her own life. “Their transformation,” she said, “means a lot to me.”